The Steenbock Paradox

For March 20, 2019     
(Two Weeks Until the 17th Annual UW Science Expeditions April 5-7)
Hi WN@TL Fans,
A few weeks ago one of my flat-nosed steel shovels went missing. It was one of those ergonomic jobs with a curved plastic handle. Great for spading through the chunky snow the city plow leaves in a ridge blocking my driveway. But who would have walked off with a guy’s shovel? 
Last week I came home through the backyard gate and there next to the fence, half-revealed in the melting snow like a Farm & Fleet Ötzi, was my lost shovel.  I had probably left it leaning against the fence, and it probably got tired, and it probably laid down atop the snow for a rest, and there it expired. Then fell more snow, and my shovel was gone.
One measure of the severity of a winter is the surprising discoveries revealed as the snow in your backyard gradually melts away, and all sorts of junk and gems come back into view.
Archeologists and historians serve a similar function as the springtime sun and summer winds.  They uncover artifacts and stories, tools and texts, that have been buried by sands or snows and lost from sight and faded from memory.. 
This week (March 20) we get a new view of one of the oldest legends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as historian Kevin Walters of WARF digs deep into the professional life and times of Harry Steenbock, a pivotal personality in the story-arc of intellectual property, licensing & royalties for inventions created at a US university. 
Here’s how Kevin describes his talk, entitled “Before the Foundation: Harry Steenbock and the Patenting of University Science, 1886-1925”:
A syndicated story, printed in newspapers across the country in March 1940, placed the record-setting winnings of Seabiscuit, the plucky, inspirational racehorse of the Depression Era, within the context of four other famous careers. The horse had earned more than President Roosevelt, and more than Babe Ruth, but still not as much as a movie star like Greta Garbo. 
To make the story more relatable to the reader, the comparison also included “Dr. Harry Steenbock” described as “a professor at Wisconsin” who “saved millions of children from the crippling effects of rickets by developing [a] process for introducing vitamin D into foods” but had “refused a million dollars for his process.” The humble professor’s salary, over the course of his entire career, earned him about half of what Seabiscuit had won in just five years.

But the papers got it wrong. In truth, royalties from the vitamin D process had outpaced Seabiscuit by 1940 and, before long, Steenbock would have a net worth larger than the one estimated for Garbo. The wealthier he became from his science, the more he was celebrated for turning down a fortune for the sake of science. 
This lecture will explain the seeming paradox of Steenbock’s fame and fortune as well as what it can tell us about the history of vitamins, science, and the university.
About the Speaker
Kevin Walters is a historian of university technology transfer. He currently works as a Strategic Research Coordinator in the Communications Department at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), where he has served in various capacities as a historian and archivist since the summer of 2011.

Kevin earned a doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2018 with a dissertation on WARF founder Harry Steenbock. Prior to arriving in Madison, he spent seven years as an operations analyst at GE Capital while completing an MA in Humanities and an MA in History from the University of Texas at Dallas. He also holds a BA in History and Humanities from the University of Texas at Austin. While raised in Texas, he’s now happy to call Madison home.


In these few days before the vernal equinox the days grow longer faster than at any other time of the year. It is a time of fresh starts, a time to look anew.

Next week (March 27) Esther Stewart of the Wisconsin Geologic and Natural History Survey will be here with the newest on the oldest — the oldest rocks around, that is — as she shares insights into the Precambrian formations that make up the Baraboo Hills.

The following week we’ll have WN@TL on April 3 as usual, but also a special Friday Edition at a different time and place: 7:30 at the Wisconsin Historical Society Library on Library Mall. Tamara Thomsen’s talk that evening (see the WN@TL lineup below) will make up for our WN@TL lost on January 30 to the -28F temperatures, and thus keep us on track for 50 WN@TLs this year. Tamara’s talk kicks off the UW Science Expeditions campus open house April 5-7.

I hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.


Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Extension Division